Most of the time, when I tell people I am studying philosophy, they tend to assume it has to do with either psychology or perhaps anthropology. I think there are many misconceptions about what the study of philosophy consists of, and most people, if they know much of philosophy at all, tend to know popular concepts such as “I think, therefore I am,” or the brain-in-the-vat hypothesis. I am encouraged when people come closer to the mark and understand that it has to do with logic, but there is still a lot that’s nebulous about philosophy, and that’s an objective truth.
So what is philosophy, exactly?
It is not a science, though it does apply to the physical universe, especially in metaphysics. Summarized, philosophy is the logical study of the very fundamental nature of reality. The study of philosophy (from the Greek, philia, meaning love, and sophia, meaning wisdom), then, encompasses a handful of broad categories. Those categories are as follows:
Metaphysics: This is the study of what is beyond, or outside, of the physical. It studies the relation of the mind to the body (how the physical brain and the non-physical will and sense of self work together), as well as the relation of objects, the causation of what is physical, which leads to cosmology (the study of the universe/world), and ontology (the study of being).
Epistemology: This studies the nature of knowledge: what we do know, what we can know, whether we even can know anything, what truth is, and what is the nature of perception.
Moral Philosophy (or ethics): This is the study of the “ought.” What ought we to do, and why? Where do ethics come from? What are some of the major ethical viewpoints throughout history and across the world?
Logic: Technically, logic is not its own branch of philosophy, but is a tool to be used to properly do philosophy. The study of logic does indeed include how to use logic properly, including symbolic logic. It lays the foundation for what statements and arguments are valid or sound, to be used in the rest of the branches of philosophy.
Aesthetics: this is the study of what is good and beautiful. It examines art and matters of taste. It is a fairly minor branch of philosophy in the sense that it handles questions philosophers have deemed less important than others.
Philosophical Theology: While some would classify this as a specialized branch of philosophy on par with the philosophy of mind or the philosophy of history or language, for the Christian it is a major branch studied in order to best answer questions logically concerning the existence and nature of God. It is closely tied with theology proper, but it examines with logic the rationality of Christian belief or the existence of a deity, whereas theology proper refers to the study of the actual nature of the Christian God, beginning with the assumption that he already exists.
As stated, there are specialized branches of philosophy beyond even these, but the above are the major categories of questions a philosopher seeks to answer. There is no scientific process in philosophy, as it is theoretical; however, it is held to a rigid standard of logic and sound reasoning, and many philosophical arguments have arisen in answer to other arguments as philosophers have answered each others’ objections and arguments, beginning with the ancient Greek thinkers, some of whom have set the standard of rational processes for everyone else, all the way to present day thought.
I hope this clarifies a little what is meant by the study of philosophy. If it seems nebulous and intertwining, that’s because it is. But the study of philosophy is ancient and fundamental to human thought, and well worth examining.
Questions? Ask below!
Resources to get you started (admittedly biased by a Christian worldview–but if you’re reading this, I imagine you came here for that reason):